Friday, August 25, 2006

Story of an Essay Draft

This morning, I sat down with an essay that I started writing in March of 2005. I was in a creative-nonfiction workshop when the idea for it sprouted in my brain, and I wrote several revisions for the workshop. The more feedback I got from my classmates, the more revisions I did ... and the worse the essay grew. I'd try to shorten it, and would end up deleting a paragraph, just to add 200 words elsewhere. Purple prose started to leak from the essay where there had been none before. I added details, so many new details that seemed so important ... and I ended up with a 15-page essay.

I'd meant to write something in the 5- to 7-page range.

By the time the workshop ended, I felt disheartened, discouraged, and altogether sick of the essay. I set the work aside and moved on. I've picked it up a few times in the past year and have tried to fiddle with it, but I was still sick of it. Hubster kept saying, "Just submit it as it is. It's good enough. Somebody'll publish it."

But I couldn't send it off. It was complete, yes, in that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It had some nice little themes, a touch of humor, and some nice descriptions that weren't too purple. It told an interesting story. But it wasn't ready. And I couldn't figure out why.

Well, I picked it up a few days ago and read it, really read it, for the first time in months. I thought to myself, "This first paragraph is a real snorer. Write something else." So I wrote something else, something that wasn't nearly as boring. And that "something else" allowed me to cut out a huge swath of the first half of the essay. I realized that many of those "important details" I'd added weren't so important after all.

I guess it's kind of like when you go to a make-your-own-pizza party. You pile your pizza high with everything you can, but after it's cooked, you realize you really didn't need or want all those extras.

So that's what happened. I gave my essay some time to cook (nearly a year and a half!), and this week I saw clearly which details were necessary, and which needed the boot. In addition, the new intro brought in a theme that, unbeknownst to me, I'd weaved through the rest of the essay. Having that theme in the intro really brings it into relief elsewhere (in addition to the other themes), and gives the entire 7-page essay a new sense of wholeness.

I'm glad I waited for the essay to cook. It's still in "draft" mode, but I worked on it for a couple of hours this morning, and I now feel like I'm fine-tuning and polishing rather than blindly feeling my way around. I actually feel a little bit like I'm making art.

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